Why do educational standards fall following marketisation?

My book, ‘Learning Matters’ addresses this question in relation to the English education system. Further evidence for the negative effects of the imposition of a free market, competition based framework on a national education system has now emerged in Sweden. The latest admission of such failure in described in this Guardian article of 10 June 2015. There now seems little doubt that the decline in standards correlates with the free market based changes made to the Swedish education system. What is missing is a mechanism and associated  evidence of causation. ‘Learning Matters’ provides such evidence in the context of the changes to the English education system that are being driven by the same ideology. Nowhere else is this argument being made in relation to published research evidence. The theme is developed throughout the book, which needs to be read to fully understand the argument. However the kernel of it is in Section 5.11, which is reproduced in full here.

5.11 Children have become less able than they used to be

Two major studies carried out by Michael Shayer and his co-workers, Shayer M , Ginsburg D & Coe R (2007) and Shayer M & Ginsburg D (2009),  suggest that between the 1970s and the early years of the current century the Flynn Effect (Section 1.4) has gone into reverse in English schools. James Flynn found a pattern in all countries with national state funded education systems of average IQ scores tending to increase year on year such that standardised tests like Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) have to be re-standardised about every fifteen years. The first piece of research was with Y7 pupils and produced startling evidence of a developmental decline. The second study on Y9 pupils produced evidence of an even greater decline. This was so unexpected and dramatic that the first study became the subject a Guardian article of 24 January 2006 by John Crace, even before the work was peer reviewed and published:

“It has become an annual rite of summer. Out come the Sats/GCSE/A -level results – take your pick – and up pops a government minister to say that grades are higher than ever, teachers and schools have done a fantastic job, but there’s still room for improvement. Not everyone takes this at face value and there are a few grumbles about exams becoming easier. But even if there are suspicions that standards have dropped, no one has ever seriously suggested that children’s cognitive abilities have deteriorated. Until now. New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by Michael Shayer, professor of applied psychology at King’s College, University of London, concludes that 11- and 12-year-old children in year 7 are “now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago”, in terms of cognitive and conceptual development. Michael Shayer was quoted as follows: It’s a staggering result. Before the project started, I rather expected to find that children had improved developmentally. This would have been in line with the Flynn effect on intelligence tests, which shows that children’s IQ levels improve at such a steady rate that the norm of 100 has to be recalibrated every 15 years or so. But the figures just don’t lie. We had a sample of over 10,000 children and the results have been checked, rechecked and peer reviewed. Shayer’s wife, scientist Denise Ginsburg, was regularly employed by schools to run their Year 7 maths and science developmental testing to see which children needed Shayer and Adey’s Cognitive Acceleration programmes (5.2).  She reported that she had begun to notice a significant falling off in children’s abilities. Because of this Shayer decided to investigate further. His first research project involved the assessment of 10,000 year 7 children’s performance on developmental volume and heaviness tests. The second project found a similar negative effect on the attainment of ‘Formal Operations (1.7, 5.2) by Y8 and Y9 compared with 1976. Shayer put the cause down to: “either a change in general societal pressures on the individual, or in the style of teaching in schools, or both.”

If Shayer is right, then the question that must be answered is why children’s developmental skills have fallen off so much. Shayer has speculated about the possible lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows children to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgments about abstract concepts. I think he could be right about this but he is ignoring the significant effect of the national Nuffield Science Initiative in the 1970s that substantially changed the science curriculum in favour of large scale experimentation and hypothesising by pupils that, looking back from my own experience as a science teacher at that time, were very positive in Piagetian developmental terms. Plenty of other explanations have been offered from a variety of sources. As usual the political left favours social and environmental explanations like poor nutrition and computer games. The right tends to resort to dubious genetic arguments involving differential procreation rates and immigration. I am accepting Shayer’s conclusions of real cognitive decline and proposing a wholly educational explanation for what are educational phenomena.

My hypothesis, an invitation for others to argue about, is that degraded and corrupted curriculum involving the large scale abandonment of pupil practical activity in science lessons and the increased substitution of crude behaviourism for developmentalism as the ruling pedagogy in English schools, combined with successive perverse outcomes arising from the operation of the imposed market are combining to produce an ever tightening spiral of real educational decline that continues to manifest itself in new and often surprising ways.

The Swedish experience of the neo-liberal experiment in national education policy adds to the evidence base. In Sweden the national government at least appears to be recognising the mistake. Not so here in the UK or in the US where evidence of failure is more likely to be interpreted as being the result of policies not being applied with sufficient rigour. Hence the intention of the new Conservative government in the UK to create a thousand more privatised Academy  schools and new Free Schools, all supported by the state. Growing opposition by parents, school governors and local councils is to be overcome by passing draconian new laws.

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4 Responses to Why do educational standards fall following marketisation?

  1. Hey Roger, I get this. Despite all my A’s, 1st class science degree, university prize etc. I felt completely stupid by the end of my formal education. Sure, if you give me a topic and a specification I’ll write you an academic essay that will win a prize but, what was I doing with my spare time? Celebrity magazines and watching TV; anything that would not challenge me because I was so done with being challenged by other peoples ideas of what ‘challenging’ is supposed to look like. I’m getting there now. This world is more interesting than I could have imagined, or had time to imagine, as a hard-working student.


  2. Pingback: Why mistakes must be celebrated | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  3. Pingback: School improvement is reducing social mobility | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  4. Pingback: Educational Lysenkoism is blighting the English education system | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

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